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Traffic roundabouts can get some in Sonoma County wound up

  • Vehicles navigate the roundabout on Petaluma Boulevard South, looking north at Crystal Lane, in Petaluma, on Tuesday, February 5, 2013. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)

In engineering parlance, roundabouts "calm traffic." The term has a loose, devil-may-care ring to it, unlike "stoplight," which sounds authoritarian, even rude.

Sonoma County would seem a logical fit for roundabouts, which are touted as safer, cheaper and more environmentally friendly than your standard-issue intersection governed by a stoplight or sign.

And yet, few issues spark more controversy around these parts than roundabouts, with Cotati voters going so far as to ban them last November, likely making the city the first in the nation -- maybe even the world -- to take that extraordinary step.

"I'm sad to say that's true to the best of my knowledge," said Cotati Mayor Mark Landman, who opposed the ballot measure that led to the ban.

Undeterred, traffic planners in other Sonoma County cities and at the county level are pressing forward with plans to install roundabouts at several key intersections.

That includes, in unincorporated areas, at Highway 116 at Mirabel Road in Forestville and at Arnold Drive at Agua Caliente Road at the entrance to the Hanna Boys Center in Sonoma. A roundabout also is being considered for the three-way intersection of Highways 116 and 121/12 in Carneros, south of Sonoma.

Tom O'Kane, interim co-director of the county's Transportation and Public Works Department, called Cotati's ban on roundabouts "really foolish" and "extremely short-sighted."

He said he has never heard arguments against roundabouts that "make any sense."

Nevertheless, there are many in the county and around the nation who view roundabouts with suspicion, as if they were a plot to import European driving habits and force Americans to trade their Fords for Fiats.

The modern roundabout usually features a one-lane traffic circle in which vehicles move counterclockwise around a center circular island, entering and exiting to the right. The motorist entering the roundabout usually must yield to traffic already circling.

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